Most, if not all media types are flooding storylines with projections, keys to the season, position overviews, and more; heck, I’m right there with them. But with fall camp starting next week, I thought we would take a different look at college football’s preseason rite of passage.
First of all, camp stinks. I find no better way to describe 30 days of misery. It’s hotter than Hades and by practice eight, the vast majority of players will be sporting a serious case of “Camp Nose.” Camp nose is that ugly cut located on the upper bridge of the nose. This pain-in-the-rear injury is caused by the helmet and seems to last for the duration of the season. Another preseason practice wound is known as “Camp Ears.” Deriving from continuously putting on and taking off the helmet, camp ear describes paper-cut type slits that develop under the ears. See, these two insignificant yet painful injuries usually remain unseen on the injury report. Never the less, they drive you absolutely nuts. Sweat and daily re-cutting burns, stings, and exacerbates. You’re welcome for that hard hitting piece of KSR journalism.
The following are observations and experiences from 5 Kentucky fall camps and how they apply to the 2016 Cats:
De-Recruiting and Position Competitions
Even with the freshmen that reported in January, fall camp will be executed at a higher speed than any of the rookies have experienced. Starting with sprinting from drill to drill to actual 11-on-11 football, action is fast and furious. No matter how talented or aware the rookies may seem, most, if not all, will be lost in the first week or so. Eventually the speed of the game and their mental interpretation of practice tempo will slow down. When that happens, their talent begins to show.
De-Recruiting is the process in which freshman college athletes are welcomed to reality and realize that their “buddies” during the recruiting process are actually loud, intense, and highly-caffeinated maniacs. In other words, stars and ratings won’t save them from imminent coach-to-player motivational dialogue. To this point; Rivals, Scout, 247 and others have told the highly sought after commodities just how great and wonderful they are; but, the first weeks of camp will offer a dose of reality chased by a shot of humility. This annual “Welcome to College Football” moment happens across America. Veterans usually enjoy these moments by the way. Rookies.
Fast is good, furious is better. Furious is the most applicable term that I can think of to describe position competitions. Friends throughout the summer, for 20 days, teammates will ferociously try to one-up each other. Football is the ultimate team-first sport; however, early fall camp is 10 days of positional pugilism.
Kash Daniel, Drake Jackson, Tate Leavitt, Dakota Holtzclaw, Gunnar Hoak, Stephen Johnson, and Naquez Pringle enrolled in January. They should have a leg up on their fellow first-timers that arrived this summer. But August marks their maiden voyage into decision points that will influence them playing or redshirting. Rookie defensive and offensive personnel will be called upon to immediately contribute. They have 10 days to make their case.
A classic example of de-recruiting is starting left tackle Cole Mosier. Two highly ranked tackles, Josh Krok and Nick Richardson, are no longer with the team. The former walk-on (Mosier) has plugged along and is now sitting atop the depth chart at the position in which Krok and Richardson were supposed to already have established. Respect.
Consistency Trumps Flash
Camp drags on forever. If you frequent this site, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures or had a few laughs about the infamous Joker Phillips ice cream truck incident. To be honest, that’s more common than not. After days upon days of routine, monotonous repetition has to be segmented to maintain fresh legs and morale. When I played in the last century, we had days in which we were treated to cold watermelons, popsicles, and so forth.
Players that win position competitions are at times those that can maintain their teenage attention span the longest. How many times have you heard Mark Stoops preach, “Attention to detail”? Coaches reward those that practice at a dependable and high level. In a way, coaches value trust more than pizazz. I went into three camps embattled in a quarterback competition. Remember, I wasn’t very good. One competition was decided by injury, the other due to reliability. As my esteemed colleagues described the situation, I bored the coaches to death so they had to play me. I think that’s a nice way to say “game manager.” The third, well I lost and let’s not talk about that one ok. Dang Pookie Jones.
I see two positions in which this particularly applies: Linebacker and offensive tackle. In essence, who plays at linebacker could come down to attrition. For this position, fall camp is notorious and synonymous with injury. The 9-10 LBs that practice at a consistent level and stay healthy will play come September 3. Consistency benefits veterans like Josh Allen, Courtney Love, Denzil Ware, Jordan Jones, and Di’Niro Laster. Others will follow suit or be sent to the scout team. It’s as simple as that. With an overabundance of inexperience, those that make routine plays the most consistently will gain coach’s preference.
Most likely offensive tackle will rely less on injury and more on stability. An argument could be made that 2016 is Stoops’ first OL group that is comprised of sufficient SEC depth and quality. My take is that center Jon Toth is the only automatic starter as position competitions will be prevalent. Keep an eye on how Stoops and Gran describe tackle play. In definite passing plays; how they go, the offense will follow. Cole Mosier and Kyle Meadows are projected starters. This could remain consistent throughout or change 4-5 times during preseason practice. Camp competition is a coach’s best friend.
Southern Miss Prep
I’ve not shied away from voicing high respect for the Golden Eagles. Its offensive midpoint strength is off the chart dangerous. Remember, offensive midpoint is comprised of the center, quarterback, and running back. Experience at these three positions is vital, especially for visiting teams.
USM quarterback Nick Mullens is a poised and experienced senior with a world of arm talent. Fresh off a 4,000-yard plus 2015, Mullens will be one of the three best QBs that UK will face this season. Fellow veteran center Cameron Tom is accomplished and projects to the NFL. Tom is a very, very good football player and will pose an early benchmark challenge for Matt Elam. Running back Ito Smith is a dynamic runner with excellent pass catching ability out of the backfield.
USM was hit harder by graduation on defense but is still highly athletic and capable. I have a gut feeling that Kentucky will score a sufficient number of points in the opener. But will the Cats be able to stop Mullens and company? Get your popcorn and tickets ready. This one could come down to who has the football last.
Game sounds pretty serious huh? Well it is. The season will start, and could be heavily influenced in Week 1. I’m not solely referring to the win/loss column. I have to see Kentucky play against a quality opponent to establish a 2016 Wildcat reference point in talent, execution, and poise. That won’t take long as Southern Miss is such an opponent. A win would be a boost for Stoops and company as it would increase its chances for postseason football. However, I’m equally as interested in seeing Kentucky’s on-field product. Its performance on September 3 will paint the picture for the remainder of the season and offers an early personnel gauge. With defensive unknowns, a relatively new starting quarterback playing for his third offensive coordinator and scheme, my season projection ends here.
With such a critical opening game, you’d assume that UK will begin USM preparation on day 1 of fall camp. Not so. The Wildcat’s first 20 days of practice will be spent on, well, Kentucky. Scheme installation, position changes, group work (offense/defense/special teams), depth chart establishment, and individual drills will dominate the daily schedule. I’ve seen coaches go about first game prep in different manners. But normally it begins about 10 days prior to the season’s first kickoff.
What does all this mean?
Picture and Fan Days will be fun. Truth and separation will occur when the pads start popping. If Kentucky can beat Southern Miss, then it can win the winnable games on the 2016 schedule.